Bill Wood QC contemplates the incidentals: food, doors and Pinocchio

Mediation rooms tend to be unremarkable places. They do not have the structure and style of a courtroom.  Yet in these often plain spaces, we are privileged to witness great dramas, personal, commercial even political.  Shakespeare’s reference to “a great reckoning in a little room[1] comes to mind. To be fair he was probably referring to the death of his friend Christopher Marlowe in a fight over a bar bill.  But even that was a mediation of a kind I suppose.

The little room, the environment and the incidentals do matter of course. In fact, they are often memorable.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not a furniture fiddler. There are those who teach that to lay the foundations of a good mediation you should arrive at the mediation centre long before the parties and make subtle adjustments to the furniture to create the best possible environment. “Could you turn towards me slightly Mr Jenkins, I’m not quite getting your body language”. You know the sort of thing. 

But there are certain rooms in certain solicitors’ offices which I will only ever enter reluctantly, haunted as they are by flashbacks of bruising and protracted encounters from the past. To me they reek of impasse even now.

We see less these days of the old cliche of putting the away team in a windowless room while the home team luxuriate in a light-filled corner suite. And food discrimination is rarer now. (A word of advice to those contemplating serving their own clients a dripping roast while handing a packet of crisps to the opposition: make sure the home team’s room does not have interior windows and the ice sculpture is not readily observable from outside. Or there will be trouble.)

I swear one London firm used to calibrate the lunches it served by reference to the strength of the case they were advancing at the mediation. You knew they had a drawerful of statutory defences when the cheese and pickle sandwiches appeared. But when the roast bass and the braised fennel were served it was likely that their clients were on rockier ground.

Then the stationery drawers: I find a long wait between offers can be enlivened by doing a still life of an apple using the in-house highlighter pens (red, green, yellow – it all makes sense). Or you can take a tour of corridors to see the law firm’s art collection. Victor Pasmore and Howard Hodgkin are ubiquitous (who is complaining). Simmons and Simmons have some quite punchy Tracy Emins which I always enjoy. And I often seek consolation from one firm’s stunning Jim Dine etching of Pinocchio; particularly comforting when the parties’ discussions seem to lack a proper degree of candour.

Climate matters too. I mediated a case about the adequacy of the air-conditioning in an office building. Unfortunately, we mediated on site. The tenant had undoubtedly turned the heating up to maximum to prove his point. But the landlord and his team entered fully into the spirit of things by sweating through the day with their jackets firmly on at all times. “Temperature’s perfect, Bill. Can’t see the problem” says the red-faced chief executive.

Which brings me inevitably to doors.The modern office door is designed to expose visitors to the maximum amount of ridicule. Frequently they are so heavy that only a circus strongman can open them. And be careful. The ones that promise to open inwards open out. The ones that promise to open outwards open in.  And woe betide you if you failed to spot the slider. A really well-designed office features a cunning mixture all three.  Taking Party A’s offer to Party B involves a Rubik’s cube problem of such complexity you are liable to forget the figure. No doubt the local inhabitants derive hours of harmless fun as they watch our struggles. Perhaps it’s reassuring that at 5pm these gifted and observant peacemakers are pushing on a door they should be pulling just as enthusiastically as they did at the start of the day.

I would write more but I think the Claimant is ready for me with a new number.   Now how does this door work?


[1] As You Like It, Act 3, scene 3.

Paris: The Capital of Negotiation?

Paris has recently had a reputation for confrontation. But a hundred years ago  the allied powers (principally France, the US and Britain led by Clemenceau, Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George respectively) were in Paris negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. Clemenceau had just survived an assassination attempt. He observed wryly that even after the greatest war in history a Frenchman had taken seven shots at him at close range and only hit him once: proof if it were needed that however dark the circumstances humour always has a role to play.

A hundred years on and the second weekend in February saw the international mediation community (including three of the Brick Court team) descend upon Paris for the festival of negotiation that is the ICC Mediation Competition. Law students from France, the US and Britain and upwards of thirty other countries from all across the globe descend to compete in a mediation moot. Professional mediators conduct the mediations and score the students’ performances.

Political references are still not far away: this year the running gag at the conference was the very notion that Brits should be teaching anybody about process design or negotiation.

The students are hugely enthusiastic and negotiate skilfully, always in English and often a long way from their native language.

They relish the co-operative style of working, clearly enjoying the change from the orthodox models offered in their professional training. Each team gets a confidential briefing setting out their party’s deeper interests and plans for the future. The problems usually offer some crock of gold in terms of future collaboration. One party turns out to have a warehouse full of size 8 left shoes. But wait: the other party has a warehouse full of size 8 right… well you can imagine. Always a win-win. It is great to have the chance of a happy ending and a refreshing change for the jaded ADR hacks who officiate.

And yet, and yet…. It can lead to a relentlessly collaborative approach that ignores the difficult issues and the hard exchanges. We all know that if you don’t acknowledge the anger/disappointment/affront /betrayal that has got you into the mediation you are going to be in trouble later; if you don’t let the monsters into the room they will wait outside and bite you later.

Back in the real world I often recall for parties the shortest opening statement that I have ever heard: three words, the first beginning with “F”, the second being “you”  and the third an anatomical term. As a statement of case it was not only more succinct than the sixteen pages of close contractual analysis offered on the other side, it also kick-started the negotiation far more effectively. Mediators would recognise immediately the opportunity that those words offered. We settled, admittedly at 10 pm. I don’t recommend the three-word approach as a formulation to get you into the finals in Paris. But, as the 2019 winners,  University of Auckland team,  clearly  grasped, some grit in the mix is essential. “This why I am angry. Why are you angry?”

As I sat in the departure lounge I contemplated the zero-sum mediation I was returning to conduct in London; claims on the  aviation insurance market arising from an air crash. Collaboration? Er…no. Future business? Um… with the airline in liquidation probably not.

Sitting at the gate I was surrounded by tired children wearing Micky Mouse ears and their even more tired parents, clearly a tremendous trip. They had all been to Disneyland.

Perhaps we all had.

Geoff Sharp, John Sturrock and Bill Wood attended the Paris competition.

Of Team Selection And Other Trials

Mediators think they probably have the best job in the world and they do not often make a plea for sympathy. But here goes.

As parties using mediation grow in confidence they have increasingly firm ideas as to how to conduct the mediation day. They are likely to have firm plans, for example, as to who should speak in the plenary session, when the first offer should be made and when and if clients should speak direct. All good.

Interestingly they also have firm ideas as to how the other side should conduct themselves. More difficult. We frequently mediate between parties who approach the mediation day in radically different ways and a conflict develops over process as intense as the dispute itself. One side may want the first offer at 10:15 am. The other wants an exhaustive series of meetings between the experts before any negotiation can happen. Choice of representative is particularly tricky. It could be “Where is Mr. Jones. None of the people attending know anything about this dispute” or as easily “Why is Jones coming? He is far too close to this dispute. He will never let them settle.”

This sort of dispute can start bubbling away well in advance of the mediation and the parties try to get the mediator involved. It happened today. I was copied in on an exchange in which one party suggested that both sides’ experts should attend next week’s mediation. His opposite number went straight into Caps Lock: “Our Mr. Jones will NOT BE ATTENDING”.

Unsurprisingly attempts to pick the other side’s team can touch a nerve.

“Good morning Sir Alex.

Arsene, how nice to hear from you. How can I help?

Well, I just wanted to share a few ideas about your back four for Saturday’s game.

Yes absolutely. Always worth listening to. Fire away…”

These rows can be an unhelpful start to the mediator’s involvement in the dispute. It is hard to build rapport with a party when your first telephone call   apparently adopts criticism of their strategy.   One has to tread carefully to avoid seeming to have adopted the opponent’s position. Following a volcanic discussion with Party A you call Party B. “Am I right in getting a slight sense that the parties have different views about representation?”

We will try to resolve these issues. They can give the mediator lots of clues to the psychology of the dispute. And parties do sometimes agree to review and change their approach. But in the end both sides only have the sanction of withdrawal as their sure remedy. The other side’s approach is the other side’s approach and you either work with it or you don’t mediate at all.

So, we will do our best but in the end it is your call.

Aftercare, Chardonnay and Arizona

Sitting on a panel of mediators in front of an audience of US insurance lawyers last month the topic of mediation aftercare came up. The view on all sides was that when mediations do not settle on the day the mediator’s involvement in the days and weeks that follow is now routine and expected .

Parties expect the mediator to be in contact by phone and email, maybe even over coffee or in a reconvened smaller group. These exchanges can continue over weeks, even months. I have once or twice attended court in mid-trial just before the lunch adjournment at the invitation of the parties to meet them and try to break the deadlock.

Some counsel like a light touch, others want the mediator to push hard. Except in the few cases of truly angry termination (and sometimes even in those) aftercare is taken for granted

Why is it so productive? Companies and individuals can get painted into a corner on the day of the mediation. People get tired and frustrated. Big organisations can simply take time to process a new view of a case as they turn the proverbial super-tanker.

In the hour the panel took to address the conference (in Phoenix, Arizona) I received two text messages.

The first was an unremarkable inquiry from my daughter as to why there was no chardonnay in the fridge at home. But the second from the general counsel of a major media company read simply “Deal Done!”.  A potentially nasty trial between the organisation and its departing Chief Executive had been due to start the next working day. I had overseen an exchange of offers that morning in Phoenix (the afternoon in London) by telephone and email.

I would have punched the air but I was too busy being English.  Sometimes the aftercare seems to be more challenging and more rewarding than the surgery itself.

Phexit: A Beginner’s Guide

Watch out all London insurance dispute specialists! It turns out it is not only the financiers of Dublin. Frankfurt and Paris who are relishing current opportunities.

When the American Bar Association’s Insurance Litigation Section meets in Tucson Arizona on 1st March delegates will be offered a number of fascinating break-out discussions (including one on timely notification of claims with the irresistible title It’s Too Late Baby, Now It’s Too Late).

But the eye-catcher is this one scheduled for 12.05pm:

Breakout: “PHEXIT”: Why Policyholders May Pull Out of Britain and Why London May Be at Risk of Losing Its Grip on Insurance Coverage Arbitrations

Phexit. You heard it here first.